17 Jan 2019

VA Book Club: “The Only Story”

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

‘The Only Story’ tells the profound, yet moving love story of 19-year-old Paul, and 48-year-old Susan, a married, mother of two and the complex and intense suffering that follows.


As Paul reminisces on his first love, we are taken through different perspectives as the fragile story begins to unfold.


Author, Julian Barnes’ writes in such a way that although tragic and helplessly sad, is also extremely touching and nostalgic.


“Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition; it could only ever be captured in a story.”


At VA, we all thought the characters were not given enough development in order to really unpick them as individuals.


Paul and Susan’s relationship was not given much expansion, leaving the jump from a sordid affair into a frontal relationship, a difficult one to digest. We wanted to know more and even though the story is told through Paul’s eyes it didn’t feel enough.


“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.”


Reoccurring comments have been the overwhelming nature of Barnes’ writing. Perhaps a little too stream of consciousness heavy in places, leaving some pages needing to be re-read for a full understanding.


The book has been split into three parts, all told from different ‘perspectives’ – an interesting grammatical switch –  but all whilst being told by Paul in a sense, which perhaps adds to the idea of the narrator becoming increasingly disassociated from his own ‘only’ story.


“You realise how sympathy and antagonism can coexist. You are discovering how many seemingly incompatible emotions can thrive, side by side, in the same human heart.”


As the final paragraph ends, we were left feeling slightly short changed and with a feeling of emptiness, perhaps the main intention of Barnes.


Despite some beautiful and evocative passages of text, ‘The Only Story’ is a good read but not necessarily a favourite.



I Would Like To Know

How did ‘The Only Story’ make you feel? Are you glad you read it?


Did you find the narrative gripping? Did it hold your attention? Did you like the changing perspectives?


Who was your favourite character? Did you have any?


Did you have a favourite passage? Are there sections of the story you re-read?


The ending? How did you feel about it?


Is it the kind of book you would normally read? Was it challenging and creatively rewarding as a reader?


Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

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16 Comments

Anne Campbell-Crawford

How did ‘The Only Story’ make you feel? Are you glad you read it?
It made me think “Oh how love is blind”

Did you find the narrative gripping? Did it hold your attention? Did you like the changing perspectives?
Yes, I couldn’t put the book down until way past my bedtime.

Who was your favourite character? Did you have any?
The characters were all flawed and I didn’t identify with any of them, which made it all the more interesting.

Did you have a favourite passage? Are there sections of the story you re-read?
I quite like the description of the female interrogater “she with the beige hair”, I knew just what was meant.

The ending? How did you feel about it?

Is it the kind of book you would normally read? Was it challenging and creatively rewarding as a reader?
Yes on both counts although it wasn’t intellectually challenging.

Did you like it? Would you recommend it?
Yes and I would recommend it as a very good read and easily accessible.

Reply
Vicki

Thank you, Anne
I enjoyed it and found it a quick read like you, although I did want more detail at the time… mainly from Susan’s point of view.
The author, a celebrated novelist, has excellent powers of observation… they were really very spot on in so many passages.
And yet, it hasn’t stayed with me like other reads.

Reply
Marie Eberlin

Beautifully written but a heartbreaking book. Part 1 made me nervous, I thought someone would be murdered. Part 2 was devastating. Was Susan always an alcoholic or was she as Norah Ephron said about her parents: one day they weren’t alcoholics and the next day they were. This section was particularly hard to read.
The description of first love and how memory changes as one looks back were interesting.
Would I recommend this novel. Yes but I would warn the person that it is not a light read.

Reply
Vicki

I wanted to know more about Susan’s progression to alcoholism .. was it as a result of their relationship? Her guilt over defying conventions at the time?
There were so many gaps… and I understand the novel was about Paul and his reflections on the relationship.. but still…

Joan was a marvellous character I thought…

Reply
Robin

Such an unconventional story. I wondered if I having an American response to the writing style as well as the characters. This is the first British writer I’ve read in a long time – a personal discovery. Enjoyed his writing vocabulary and turns of phrase once my “ear” grew accustomed.
Such sadness- Susan’s heart was broken by the war time death of her first love. Casey Paul’s heart was broken by Susan’s alcoholism. If she hadn’t been plagued by addiction, would his love for her have continued into old age (hers)?
Thinking about recommending to my community book club – all women in our 60s to 80s – hmmm?

Reply
Vicki

I am so glad you enjoyed it Robin.. and yes.. even though I have lived in London for the last nearly 20 years I too enjoyed his vocabulary and smiled at some of his expressions. We Aussies are similar to the Brits but not exactly.
Recommend it and see where the discussions lead? I for one have thought about many things since reading this.. and hope to chat about them here in the next few weeks..

Reply
Debbie Hawkins

I did enjoy the book but I felt all the jumping about and changing of his opinions one way or the other a little annoying at first…but then I got used to the style. I was curious while reading as to what had happened but can’t say I found it gripping. Joan was my favorite character – she was the only clear headed and straight forward character. I did find it interesting that the husband was abusive yet the boys did not really notice or understand it until it was undeniable. Very sad how susan was not able to acknowledge it and stand up for herself. I found many of the quotes and questions about the nature of love and our ability to love another interesting and thought provoking…not sure their’s was really love but more co -dependent – which I gues love becomes in so many relationships.

Reply
Vicki

Joan was my favourite character too…
I hadn’t thought about whether their’s was a “real” love or not? Interesting question…
I’m mulling that over.. My first reaction is to say it was to them or at least it was for Paul… I was never really sure of Susan.. Was Paul her way of escaping an unhappy marriage which then turned into alcoholism?

Reply
Diane

I was glad to read “The Only Story” but must say it wasn’t an easy read due to, primarily I think, the lack of character development. I don’t mind hard stories, like alcoholism and the breakdown of relationships, but I just wasn’t drawn into Susan and Paul like I wanted to be. I wanted the author to dig deeper. Joan on the other hand was fun! Overall, I was glad to have read it. I felt unsettled at the end which I assume is what the author wanted…it was full of missed opportunities for Paul for closure and perhaps for Susan as well, even in her condition. But that is often life.

Thanks Vicki for having this book club! I enjoy being presented w/ new books and authors who I might not otherwise find.

Reply
Vicki

Thank you, Diane… you have summed up exactly my feelings about this one.
It’s difficult choosing the titles… I am trying not only to challenge us but also to find enjoyment in the written word.
Any suggestions for No 3 would be most welcome :)

Reply
Diane

Vicki, one of the most compelling books I have read in quite some time is “From A Clear Blue Sky” by Timothy Knatchbull. Have you read it? I don’t recall how I ran across it and it wasn’t easy to find (I think I ordered thru Amazon UK). It was written in 2009 but I found it still quite timely today. A beautifully written memoir about grief, families and the history of the IRA. The history was fascinating but it was how Timothy processed through his grief of the loss of his twin brother and other family members that was the most engaging and heart-wrenching for me. Disclaimer…perhaps some of my emotion and reaction to the story is the fact that I have twin sons…who are now reading his book. I can’t imagine what their perspective will be. But I don’t believe you have to be the mother of twins (or a twin) to find the book deeply thought-provoking. Really a good read.

Reply
Catherine S.

I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW

How did ‘The Only Story’ make you feel? Are you glad you read it?

The book brought many emotions to me. At times, I felt melancholy or sad for the characters, other times irritated by their behaviors.

Did you find the narrative gripping? Did it hold your attention? Did you like the changing perspectives?

I found it a quick read and it did hold my attention. I always wanted to read another few pages when other duties called me away. The changing perspectives didn’t bother me. They made me pay attention and not skim over certain parts.

Who was your favourite character? Did you have any?

All the characters had their own issues, flaws etc. However, (except for Gordon McCleod) I don’t think any of the characters were “bad” people. I admired Paul’s loyalty to Susan. I also thought Joan and Eric were very loyal friends.

Did you have a favourite passage? Are there sections of the story you re-read?

I did reread some of the part of Section 1, as I was nearing the end of the book, to refresh my memory about the beginning of Susan and Paul’s relationship.

The ending? How did you feel about it?

The ending wasn’t unexpected but still sad. Maybe I am overanalyzing, but it seems that Susan was the happiest in her life in her late teens/early twenties, prior to losing Gerald. And, in turn, Paul seemed to be the happiest at 19 at the beginning of his romance with Susan. Similarly, as Susan lost Gerald, Paul eventually lost Susan to addiction.

Is it the kind of book you would normally read? Was it challenging and creatively rewarding as a reader?
I wouldn’t have picked the book on my own. I am now eager to read other books by Julian Barnes.

Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

I did like the book and would recommend.

Thank you for providing this forum. It is the first book club where I feel I can’t sit back and enjoy the read without the pressure of deadlines.

Reply
Vicki

Thank you, Catherine.
The idea for this readership is that we enjoy, explore and discover… definitely no pressure. It’s as much to re-ignite our passion for turning pages as anything else.
I really enjoy the contributions :) It makes my reading so much more interesting.

Reply
Catherine S.

Your description is perfect “re-ignite our passion for turning pages”! Also, please excuse the typo I just noticed. Obviously I meant “A book club where I CAN sit back” (not can’t).
Best Regards,
Catherine

Reply
Tracey

Hello Vicki, thank you for this book selection. It is not a book that I would have chosen to read and although I found it really easy and quick to read; it took me ages to get past the first few pages. I just didn’t like the style of writing or even the story line. But because it was part of the book club, I made myself read it. I can’t say I enjoyed it and yes the characters left much to your imagination but I’m glad I read it. I have a family member who drinks too much and this book made me see the situation from a new angle and how strong you need to be to be the other person who loves them. It was a similar read to “Tuesday’s with Morri”. I was very pleased her daughter came through for her. Would I recommend the book….yes to the right person…sometimes you need to read a simple easy quick book but with a very strong and confronting topic. Thank you, looking forward to your next selection.

Reply

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